Atlanta Braves: 5 Questions That Need Answering in the 2012 Season

Evan Walker@@EvanTheJetCorrespondent IMarch 29, 2012

Atlanta Braves: 5 Questions That Need Answering in the 2012 Season

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    Although it was played in the wee hours of the morning in Japan, the first series of the 2012 MLB season has awkwardly concluded; meaning it's time for the Atlanta Braves to kick it into regular-season mode and settle some of the problems facing the team.

    From the bench to the bullpen, the Braves' roster is far from finalized, and it's looking like Atlanta will need the entirety of spring training to get a clear picture of how the team will look after it's epic 2011 collapse.

    Here are the five biggest questions facing Fredi Gonzalez and the Braves before the regular season begins.

What Can We Expect from Chipper?

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    Three things in life are unavoidable: death, taxes and Chipper Jones getting hurt.

    Hopefully, the future HOFer will be able to suit up for his last home opener as an Atlanta Brave—that is, of course, until he's the Braves' hitting coach in a couple of years.

    The best way to look at Chipper's upcoming season would be to go ahead and accept the fact that he probably won't play more than 140 games. It's just not a realistic goal.

    Having said that, Chipper can still swing the bat. When Jones is only at 70 percent, he's still probably one of the top third basemen in the NL.

    I can see Chipper hitting 20 bombs and batting a respectable .280, pretty good numbers for a soon to be 40-year-old man.

    I can also see No. 10 losing his third spot in the batting order, especially if Freddie Freeman keeps raking and Jason Heyward bounces back.

Who Will Win the Last Bullpen Spots?

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    Today, the Braves traded young reliever, Jairo Asencio, to the Cleveland Indians for cash—"dolla-dolla-billz, y'all."

    Any Wu-Tang fans out there? Probably not.

    Anyway, before the trade, Asencio and Cory Gearrin seemed to be winning the fight for the last two spots in the bullpen, but Gonzalez and the front office would rather get some dough for the MVP of the Caribbean Series instead of paying him for a short stint in an already stacked 'pen.

    That leaves two viable options for two spots: Gearrin and lefty Yohan Flande.

    Gearrin and his sidearm delivery have been very impressive this spring, along with Flande, so the Braves should be content with these two guys backing up the nasty boys, (Kimbrel, Venters, O'Flaherty) in the back end of the bullpen.

    Spring Training Stats:

    • Flande:  10.2 IP,    0 ER,    8K,   6 Walks
    • Gearrin: 10.0 IP,    2 ER,   10K,   5 Walks

    This problem is practically solved, so thanks Fredi Gonzalez for ruining my slide. Can't a man make a living?

Who Will Hold It Down for Huddy?

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    The Braves, as usual, have a very strong starting rotation on paper heading into the regular season, but with Tim Hudson's bad back, they will need a temporary stop-gap for the No. 5 spot.

    Assuming that Fredi Gonzalez is true to his word, Kris Medlen will be employed by the bullpen, and only the bullpen; so that leaves top prospects Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado dueling it out for Huddy's job.

    So far this spring, although both hurlers sport hideous ERAs, Delgado has simply outperformed Teheran.

    Teheran, the Braves No. 1 prospect, has allowed nine homers in 13 spring training innings, including six in one outing.

    You would think that after five homers in one game, someone would just shoot him and end his misery.

    Don't get me wrong, Teheran is going to be a great pitcher for a long time, but Delgado has shown improvement as spring training progresses. Yes, even in the Blue Jays game, where Delgado gave up 10 hits and five earned runs, he showed good control with both his fastball and breaking-ball: five K's, one BB.

    It's a tough call for Gonzalez, but signs are pointing to Delgado, and maybe even a combination of both pitchers.

    No matter which pitcher wins the job, Medlen will still be the better choice, but hey, I'm not the manager of the Braves...not yet, at least.

Andrelton Simmons or Tyler Pastornicky?

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    Heading into spring training, Tyler Pastornicky seemed to have the starting shortstop job sealed and locked away, but as soon as exhibition season began, Pastornicky found himself in the middle of an old-fashioned shootout.

    Enter Andrelton Simmons Stage Left.

    Neither player has shown that his bat can be a big contribution to the lineup, but manager Fredi Gonzalez has already made it clear that defense is the biggest priority when it comes to shortstop.

    In that case, Simmons should be the favorite.

    If only life were that simple.

    The most noticeable problem, and possibly the deal-breaker, with making the slick-fielding Simmons Atlanta's Opening Day shortstop is is lack of experience at the professional level. Sure, both are 22 years of age, but Pastornicky has experience at every level in the minors and more than double the professional at bats of Simmons.

    It would probably be a better move for both the Braves organization and Simmons to let the kid prove himself in the minors for another year or so and let the equally-talented Pastornicky hold down the position.

    If Pastornicky or veteran Jack Wilson don't pan-out, Simmons is always just a phone call away.

Can Jason Heyward Bounce Back?

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    Jason Heyward, 2010 ROY runner-up, saw a sharp decline in his numbers in 2011.

    • 2010: (.277 / .393 / .456)
    • 2011: (.227 / .319 / .389)

    Some blame the free-fall on injury and others on opposing pitchers making adjustments and his lack-there-of. Heyward blames his swing for his dip in production in 2011—he has worked the entire offseason and spring training working with Braves coaches (and Chipper Jones) on re-tooling the swing that made the phenom a star in 2010.

    Without production from their right fielder, the Braves may once again struggle to score runs in 2012. Heyward's ceiling is sky-high, but there are still doubts about his consistency at the plate and his ability to stay healthy.

    If his potential is reached, Heyward is capable of filling the third spot in the lineup for the Braves and turning a good offense into one of the NL's best, but Atlanta will have to take a wait-and-see approach when it comes to Heyward. It's no secret that the future of the Atlanta Braves could rest on Heyward's shoulders. Only time will tell if he's up for the task.